Trump's recent conflicts with Congress in the waning days of his presidency reveal a demagogue desperate enough to return to his populist beginnings.
Consider that, in the last week, Trump has vetoed a bloated defense budget--one that accounts for over 50% of the discretionary spending of the total budget and includes billions for upgrading nuclear weapons, building unneeded aircraft carriers, keeping troops where they aren't wanted (notably, Afghanistan and Iraq), and teaching Navy SEALS how to scan the brains of goats (OK, George Clooney made that last one up--I think). He also resisted signing the new COVID-relief legislation because he wanted the individual payment to be increased to $2000, which is $800 more than even Bernie Sanders advocated. In all of this the narcissistic billionaire behaved, shockingly, like a genuine populist.
If he wasn't quite in all this trying to drain the swamp and recompense the growing gap between haves and have nots, he at least was trying to cut the fat and feed the people. Of course, Trump continues to insist the Pentagon sell more jets to Saudi Arabia--a country with whom there can be no doubt he has a sweetheart deal regarding his hotel properties. Pork in Trump's own trough is always kosher. But, just for a moment, let's forget the billionaire narcissist feathering his own nest and consider this sudden burst of populism in its best possible light.
Let's start with Russia. (I promise this will make sense.) Trump's love of Putin's Russia is deeply disturbing not because Russia is a genuine geopolitical threat militarily or economically, but because Russia is devoted to the destabilization of democracy in a way that surpasses in its virulence the relatively defensive actions of the old Soviet Union, which was more interested in protecting markets for its command economy than exporting an anti-democratic ideology. (The Soviet Union had no problem, for instance, when Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas solidified power in 1984 via free and fair elections.) The old leaders of the USSR (Brezhnev and Gorbachev, most notably) actually kept Putin's KGB on a leash, but now Putin runs the whole state apparatus as if it were the secret police. Admittedly, Trump's appeasement of Putin betrays his warm fuzzies for authoritarianism in its most abject forms. But Trump's appeasement reveals something else as well: a populist approach to geopolitics that completely bypasses both Democrats and Republicans in DC.
Populists are naturally suspicious of internationalism as a rigged game for the elites. Much of Trump's suspicion of Merkel (his misogyny aside) and his coziness towards Putin are in line with his populist impulses--impulses admittedly dependent on his resentment of East Coast elites for not inviting him to the tonier parties rather than on empathy with how those same elites screw the little guy. Nonetheless, as populist-ish, Trump rejects the grand narrative generally shared inside the Beltway.
In fact, the narrative that professional pols from Hilary Clinton to Orin Hatch share about Russia is ridiculously out of date. Russia does not seek to undermine America or elevate Trump, per se, so much as to undermine democracy and sow chaos internationally (with America just being the biggest prize in the contest). The polarity of the Cold War has given way to the asymmetrical multiverse of criminal global capitalism and its stalking horse, hyper-nationalism. The vacuum between the old Cold War narrative and the current reality is one Trump and Putin seek to fill with international thuggery, a.k.a. oligarchic global capitalism. In such a reality, more money for the military, as a general principle, makes no sense, while more money for particular actors in particular "art of the deal" scenarios makes all the sense in the world. So Trump puts a thumb in the eye of the power elite on both sides--and even takes a swipe at the military-industrial complex--with his veto of the Defense Authorization bill. Of course, it may be more petty than that (e.g. his temper tantrum about social-media rules), but as I implied at the outset, this piece is a thought experiment where we give Trump the benefit of the doubt. In any case, we can be sure that many Trump supporters--and even some Bernie Bros--see this action as "sticking it" to those who ought to get stuck.
And maybe Trump senses one other trend as well. In the run-up to and immediate aftermath of WWII, Britain was an empire in decline. After all, only an empire in decline would have signed the agreement with Hitler at Munich in the first place--an agreement in which one empire accedes to a rising nation state laying the foundation for its own imperialism. During and after the war, Britain punched above its weight mostly due to its plucky response to Hitler's bombings and the sheer political charm and linguistic verve of Churchill. Once he left office, the decline of the UK accelerated rapidly as it went quickly through a series of ineffectual prime ministers, each one more hapless than the last, until out of sheer desperation, the nation chose the daughter of a grocer, Maggie Thatcher, to try and staunch the bleeding by busting heads both at home and abroad. The point? Appeasement becomes a declining empire best, and Trump, at a gut level, understands this.
Indeed, his "Make America Great" stance is a reality-TV pose that hides his actual cynicism about any nation state's claims to exceptionalism--this is why he has excused horrors committed by other nations, like the Israelis and the Saudis, with off-hand references to the atrocities committed in America's history: tit for tat and that's that, as he, like an exasperated Oliver Hardy, dusts off his plump, small hands. Nations, for Trump, are just a means to do business. To him, the narrative of the Cold War is now faintly ridiculous: NATO is a boondoggle and Russia, someone we can reason with for mutual profit and pleasure. Give him his due, Trump knows it's time to roll back the outposts as the Romans did before the Visigoths' final triumph, and, like any corrupt magnate, he wants to do it in such a way to maximize his own advantage. What a memorable tyrant Trump might have been had he kept his Rasputin, Steve Bannon, on (and so kept that idiot savant from a life of crime) to help him engineer such a dismantling of the super-state for personal gain instead of having to rely on the likes of his son-in-law Jared Kushner to ape Kissinger on the geopolitical stage--a man whose only prior experience for such a task was probably dusk-to-dawn games of Risk in his college-dorm room.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).